May 7, 2004 - From the April, 2002 issue

MTA's New Sector Plan Prioritizes Service, Empowers Workers & Infuses Creativity

From his former vantage of Director of Transit Services for the City of Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus, John Catoe once used the MTA as an example of what an organization should not become. Now, as the new Deputy CEO of MTA, Catoe has meshed that critical viewpoint with his new found knowledge of the inner-workings of the organization to improve service, empower employees and truly refocus the organization on transportation. His goal is to make the MTA the #1 transit provider in Southern California-not based merely on size-but based on the attainment of an unparalleled level of service for transit riders. MIR was pleased to talk with Catoe about his vision of a more user-friendly service and the challenges inherent in its implementation particularly as it relates to the ever-present Consent Decree.


John Catoe

Mr. Catoe, having work for the Big Blue Bus in Santa Monica, what did you actually think of the MTA prior to your being hired? What do municipal operators in general think of the MTA?

In fairness, I have used the MTA as an example of what not to become. I've always believed that you never say you're going to be number two. You've got to strive for number one. And to do that you've got to pick someone you're going to be better than. That was easy to do because of the size and tradition of the MTA. And while it was providing service, it just wasn't being provided to a level that I would deem "quality."

And now that you've become a part of the MTA management team, did your first impressions mesh with your earlier and competitive viewpoint?

The MTA is an enormous agency. And when I finally began to understand its issues, I realized that they were no different than the ones I was confronted with when I was in Santa Monica. The only difference is that there are a lot more people involved in any attempt to change the process.

My other observation is that the MTA is full of incredibly talented and creative people. Oftentimes they are hidden behind the people who learned about transit from their RTD predecessors. Because of that, our current culture is being taught about transportation from a 50-year old lesson plan. That translates into a very narrow view of transit operation. The challenge is to find the creative people in this agency who see the bigger picture, make sure they are in the correct situations, that they are empowered, and that the most creative ones are working on the difficult topics of improving service and quality.

MIR has often heard critiques from other smaller operators who advise that scale is often the enemy in the delivery of quality public transit services. You've come from a smaller quality operation. Do you share this attitude about the significance of scale?

The MTA's management structure has historically made decisions that impact the region's transportation from this tower. In some cases, the decision makers had never been out to a particular neighborhood, they didn't know where it was located and had never seen a bus travel up and down its streets. Frankly, under the current structure, it's hard for planners to know where half of our streets are located. That paradigm is unacceptable. There is no way for a person to make decisions about the MTA from this tower's vantage.

To combat that, we looked to the industry and found that the best transit providers seem to operate approx. 400-600 buses. At that level, the issues become manageable. To get our organization to that level, we will be dividing our jurisdiction into five geographical service sectors each with control of the Tier Two and Three bus lines-local routes and shuttle services.

But unlike past experiments, they will not merely be managers in the field relying on services provided from this tower. The key element to these sectors will be that each sector will have a regional general manager, planning staff, scheduling staff, finance staff and community outreach staff with autonomy. The only operations not controlled in these sectors will be payroll and policy. This will enable our employees to see the bus routes and schedules daily and make service alterations depending on need.

One of the arguments often made to explain why MTA decisions are made in this tower is that the major stakeholders-the employees and their union representatives-want a hierarchical structure to negotiate with. Given MTA's recent decision to decentralize, what's been the reaction of the unions?

The unions have been very cautious. They have had concerns. And there has been an element of distrust. But this process will not impact their agreements and will not diminish the rights of the drivers, mechanics, service workers or supervisors. But, at this point in the process, I have nothing more than my record to show them that I'm telling the truth.

John, you sound like you're totally dedicated to having a changed culture that helps deliver quality service to the riding public. As you decentralize and put general managers in geographical sectors, how do you sustain a service culture in each sectors? What's the feedback loop to the general managers of those sectors that reinforces a service oriented culture?

In order to fulfill my directive of improving this operation's performance I must have every employee in this organization participating-participating not just as providers or managers, but as leaders in all facets of operations. I want mechanics, drivers and even customers to decide what engines and transmissions we should have, the configuration of the driver's compartment, the seats, etc. We need to empower the people who are using, fixing and driving these buses on a daily basis. If we can do that, if we can focus and direct our employees to take that kind of responsibility for our service, I believe that we can out-perform the private sector.

That empowerment must also happen at the management and regional levels. So to encourage that, we have given each sector general manager a regional mandate (i.e. rebuilding, vehicle maintenance, instruction, or service development for our Tier One routes-which will still remain under the regional management structure.) So, simply put, if a general manager in the San Fernando Valley sector is not working with the South Bay sector they won't be able to get their jobs done. Each general manager must depend on the others to fulfill their individual responsibilities as well.

I don't want to sound Pollyannaish, but transportation is effectively funded by federal and state authorities; MTA's board and management is far from being a sovereign. How then does MTA management change the culture, consistent with our federal and state funding formulas. How much room is there for you to really exert leadership? And how do you deal with the possibility that if employees or your partners disagree with your leadership they need only go to Sacramento of D.C. to shut off your funding?

The best defense against people going to Sacramento or Washington D.C. and asking that our funding be cut is: provision of quality service. So when we provide quality, attractive service to the public, lower our costs, and outperform the private sector, we will have the ultimate defense against anyone challenging our funding. That's the only way to combat anyone attempting to reduce funding.

What many people in the public sector don't realize is that nothing is guaranteed in this business. I have had people ask me how we can make such radical changes in a governmental agency. And my common response is, "Why do we have to be any different than the private sector?" There is no law saying that we cannot use the same management techniques, provide our employees incentive to be proactive and reward leadership. Too often the public sector makes excuses. We say we're civil service, we blame bargaining units, and we huddle under the historic perception that governmental service is not as good. We are the ones creating the environment. And because we've made all these unwritten laws, we say that we do not have the ability to perform. We need to stop making excuses and begin to use any technique available to make this agency, and those like it, perform.

In MIR's coverage of transit over the years, we've heard a common theme: that the MTA Board struggles because it is often more focused on parochial projects than upon mobility within the region. That may explain why in the past routes were designed more to plant a flag in each jurisdiction than to move ridership efficiently and quickly from point to point. Of late, there appears to be a clear and collaborative change in the culture of the Board. How are your operational responsibilities now impacted by a board member's individual priorities?

In my discussions with the Board, I have never been told to do X for the Supervisor, Y for the Mayor, and Z for a particular city. My mandate is merely to effectively run this organization within the boundary of our legislation, our bylaws and our principles.

I'm not concerned with what an individual Boardmember wants, I'm not counting votes and I'm not trying to keep Boardmembers happy by prioritizing pet projects. My only concern lies with the mandate given to me by the entire Board, and that is the provision of quality transit service.

One of the announced goals of Roger Snoble and yourself is to increase cooperation and collaboration between transit lines within the county-to increase service transparency in order that a rider might more easily use all transit systems in the metro area. What then are the incentives being employed or recommended to enlist the other operators to do this? And what are some of the disincentives that must be overcome to actually achieve your goal?

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The municipal operators are frustrated because they see a number of situations in which they and the MTA are providing service to the same corridors, at the same time, with the same terminal point. Why are we doing that? There are segments along the Big Blue Bus line that were basically empty while the MTA line that serviced the same line was full. It would have saved millions of dollars for both agencies to provide service collaboratively.

To combat that, we are working with the municipal operators to institute a regional pass. That regional pass will get past the in-fighting and the competition that has plagued this region and really refocus the MTA and our municipal operators on providing county-wide services to our customers at a significant savings to the taxpayer.

You talk of collaboration and cooperation to reduce redundancy. Let's relate that objective to the Bus Rider/ MTA Consent Decree. How do you overcome the Decree's myopic focus on the quantity of buses run by the MTA and move to providing a more cost-effective, comprehensive operational system?

As an agency, we feel that we are basically compliant with the load factor requirements under the Consent Decree. The Bus Riders' Union disagrees. And that interpretation will be one of the key issues for us in the future. However, if the Special Master agrees with the BRU's interpretation we will have to go back to providing service that is repetitive and not cost-effective.

In fairness though, we have caused part of this problem on our own. As we went through and did the analysis of why we're not in compliance with the Decree, a large percentage of the problem was because our buses were ahead or behind schedule. When you are not on schedule, buses must pick up standing loads. Those loads, had the bus been operating on time, would have been dispersed between two separate buses and caused the load to be shared. That is part of the current problem.

Another issue is that the Consent Decree does not specify 40-foot buses. We've caused part of the problem because we continue to put a 40-foot bus on a line that we know has a high load. And when we are found to be out of compliance, we simply add another 40-foot bus.

There two other kinds of buses: 45-foot buses and articulated buses. We need to look to those to begin to solve our overcrowding problems. Creativity will be the only way to respond effectively to the Consent Decree.

Could you comment on plans for the Valley Sector vs. the Valley Transit Zone. What is the significance of each re: your operational agenda?

All of these plans are, at their core, about service. And the sector-system is simply a better approach to transit. Retaining the Valley as part of the MTA transportation system will avoid a lot of legal fights with the bargaining unit and will maintain a county-wide perspective on transit. But I won't deny that it is not by accident that our first two sectors have been placed where there are pending zone applications.

And what's at stake for MTA's operational agenda as Congress takes up consideration of new funding for transportation?

For whatever reasons we don't have the best reputation in Washington D.C. And to overcome that, we will have to demonstrate to the Feds that we know what we're doing and that we are credible.

To do that we need to effectively communicate our message. The reality is that in L.A. County, the public transportation system run by the MTA carries half a billion people a year. However, if you ask the general public they would tell you that there is no public transportation in L.A. That lack of understanding is directly connected to the fact that we haven't done a very good job of telling people what we do.

We also need to demonstrate that we are efficient, and that we are responsible and make effective expenditures of the taxpayers' dollars.

There's been a lot of discussion in this region re: linking transportation and land use. L.A. expects 1 million more people to soon be living here and with growth comes more congestion. How then does the relationship between planning, development, housing and transportation relate to your service priorities and mandate?

L.A. is not like New York, Boston, Chicago or any other major city. Our employment centers and residential centers are spread out all over the place. What we need to do is connect the employment and residential centers with our transportation systems. We need to be more involved in that process particularly since our major transit terminals offer an incredible opportunity to maximize the elements of both housing and transportation.

Additional aspects of that plan would involve the creation of more parking. This region doesn't have a very good parking system right now. We have no intercept lots where people can drive to a point, park their car and get public transportation. That kind of coordination will be essential as we look to the future of transportation and this region.

By doing that we can rally both our Congressional representatives as well as our local electeds around the concept and need for transportation infrastructure. If we can develop a message and forward a plan that maximizes service and quality, we can make tremendous progress toward curbing the current traffic problem. If we can forward that message and begin to get the proper funding, we can solve this region's transportation problems.

And lastly, if we come back in a year, what benchmarks should our readers use to judge your progress in changing MTA's organizational culture and its service performance?

In a year I should be able to show you statistics-costs per hour, costs per passenger, miles between road calls, etc.-that would prove that we had increases in ridership and productivity. But the real key questions will be, "Are the customers happy?" And, "Are we truly operating at a low cost?" I don't know if all of those questions will be answered in a year's time. But you'll be able to see progress. And I believe before 5 years are up you will see a marked improvement.

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